Grayson Schaffer: Outside’s Senior Editor On the Surprising Death Rate of Sherpas on Everest

Grayson Schaffer

Since before Edmond Hillary stood atop Mount Ever­est in 1953 the Sherpa peo­ple of Nepal have assisted climbers hop­ing to sum­mit the tallest peak in the world. In an econ­omy with lim­ited prospects for finan­cial gain many Sherpa have few choices but to face the rig­ors of com­mer­cial climb­ing expe­di­tions in order to feed their fam­i­lies. And when these men die while per­form­ing extremely haz­ardous tasks, their sur­viv­ing fam­ily mem­bers are not only left with­out a pri­mary wage earner but they sel­dom receive ade­quate insur­ance ben­e­fits to help com­pen­sate for their loss. 

In his fea­ture report, “The Dis­pos­able Man,” which appeared on the cover of the August 2013 edi­tion of Out­side mag­a­zine, senior edi­tor Grayson Schaf­fer explores the rea­sons behind the star­tling one per­cent mor­tal­ity rate (later we’ll show you why that’s really high) of Sherpa guides and reveals some of the cold real­i­ties sur­round­ing this deadly profession.

In an occu­pa­tion with one of the high­est death rates in the world, are com­mer­cial climb­ing oper­a­tors and their clients ask­ing the Sherpa to pay too high a price for their adven­ture experience?

Below, The Clymb talks with Grayson Schaf­fer about some of the issues involved in cre­at­ing a Sherpa safety net:


The Clymb: Can you describe the cir­cum­stances that brought the issue of Sherpa safety to your atten­tion and what prompted you to write about it?

Schaf­fer: In the spring of 2012 I was at Ever­est base camp with an Eddie Bauer team and from the first day that I got there, Sherpa were dying. Last year I think there were three, maybe four. It seemed like there wasn’t a lot of atten­tion paid to these deaths. Then all of a sud­den on May 18th we had six west­ern climbers die and the world news media went into over­drive. The cable news chan­nels started erupt­ing. I began doing a lot of inter­views from base camp and it stuck in my mind that there was this miss­ing piece.

grayson-schaffer-disposable-man-featured2Every few years you have these big dis­as­ters, like in ’96 or in the David Sharp year, which was ’06 over on the north side, where west­ern media does this sort of hand-wringing thing where we won­der whether Ever­est is safe enough for peo­ple to climb. And yet there’s this denial and steady blood­let­ting, this trickle of local work­ers’ deaths that doesn’t get reported. 

I became curi­ous about what hap­pens to their fam­i­lies when they die and what the safety net looks like. Nepal is verg­ing on being a failed state. They’re still oper­at­ing with­out a par­lia­ment. The types of infra­struc­ture that they have—like health­care and life insurance—is very weak in the rest of the coun­try. I was curi­ous to know how far that lack of safety net intruded into the climb­ing world as well. So I went back last Octo­ber and Novem­ber with Melissa Arnot to the Khumbu to try to meet some of these fam­i­lies that had been affected by the climb­ing industry.  


The Clymb: In your arti­cle you com­pare the dan­ger­ous work that Sherpa do with that done in the most haz­ardous pro­fes­sions in the U.S., specif­i­cally com­mer­cial fish­ing. What is it about Himalayan climb­ing that makes peo­ple not raise a greater sense of out­rage over a one per­cent mor­tal­ity rate?

Schaf­fer: The thing about that mor­tal­ity rate is it’s hid­ing in the num­bers. The rea­son that peo­ple aren’t out­raged about it I think is because the actual num­ber of dead is fairly small. But the rea­son for that is because you’re get­ting those casu­al­ties in the span of one to two months in the spring and then maybe a few months in the fall among a very small work­force. So you’ve got this local pop­u­la­tion of Sherpa that are right around 100,000. Of those maybe about 10,000 are reg­is­tered as work climbers or sir­dars, and among those only a small per­cent­age are work­ing. And they’re work­ing only about two months out of the year in these dan­ger­ous places. But in that amount of time, in those dozen or two dozen laps that they’re mak­ing through the Khumbu ice­falls and up the Lhotse face car­ry­ing loads there is a very high per­cent­age of mor­tal­ity. When you take a look at how much time they are actu­ally spend­ing there and how often they’re hav­ing seri­ous acci­dents that’s where that 1.2 to 1.5 per­cent mor­tal­ity rate becomes significant.

We’ve heard these num­bers for years given as a sort of chest-thumping claim among moun­taineers. When­ever some­body writes about Ever­est we hear that only one per­cent of peo­ple who go up the moun­tain die. Those num­bers are adven­ture stats for peo­ple who are going there to climb and go for the sum­mit and climb for the record. But they are work­place safety stats for the peo­ple who work there, the Sherpa who are car­ry­ing the loads. The thing that we don’t do is make that next log­i­cal step to say that the guys who are help­ing these west­erns get to the top as part of their job are sub­ject to the same forces, the same dan­gers as the guys who choose to be there. 


The Clymb: What’s fas­ci­nat­ing about this is look­ing at this as a work­place safety issue as if were any other job, in any other indus­try. Do you sup­pose that is one of the fail­ings in rec­og­niz­ing the impor­tance of a one per­cent mor­tal­ity rate?

Schaf­fer: That is the cen­tral fail­ing because you can’t look at a one per­cent mor­tal­ity rate in any work­place and say “that’s great.” It’s only when you dress it up in this his­tor­i­cal con­text of old-school siege-style expe­di­tions with noble ambi­tions that you can will away the cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance. I think it’s help­ful look­ing at that num­ber and com­par­ing it with the jobs we know to be dan­ger­ous, that we make real­ity TV shows about, that trum­pet and cel­e­brate the dan­gers. Look­ing at mil­i­tary jobs is another one. Sta­tis­ti­cally the dan­gers of work­ing on Ever­est are prob­a­bly more dan­ger­ous than being a sol­dier in Iraq and prob­a­bly a lit­tle less dan­ger­ous than being a sol­dier in Viet­nam. That should give you a good idea of how dan­ger­ous it is work­ing in that environment. 


The Clymb: Despite the enor­mous fees that Himalayan tour com­pa­nies charge clients for an Ever­est expe­di­tion why is it that they can­not secure bet­ter salaries and ben­e­fits for their Sherpa employees?

Schaf­fer: It’s really expen­sive to climb Ever­est. And that’s not just because of the per­mits. You’ve got to fly and carry every­thing you need those 35 miles from Lukla to base camp. It takes a lot of man­power to get the route set and get the moun­tain to where a mid-level west­erner that’s decently fit but prob­a­bly not a bril­liant climber can make it to the top. It’s $60,000 to $80,000 when you break down the cost and you’re pay­ing a Sherpa work­force $4,000 to $6,000 for the spring. You get to these climb­ing rates between $30,000 and $100,000 with the big dif­fer­ence between those being the level of crea­ture com­forts that peo­ple have at base camp and the level of expe­ri­ence of the west­ern guides. If you were going to pay the Sherpa work­force the same as your west­ern guides across the board it would prob­a­bly cost closer to $200,000 to put a west­ern climber on the sum­mit of Ever­est. So there’s a cost issue.

The Ever­est econ­omy hinges on hav­ing cheap labor to help get all the gear and equip­ment up the moun­tain. I think that one of the things we will see chang­ing here in the next few years is these local out­fit­ters are going to get big­ger and more pow­er­ful. I think already there’s a com­pany called Seven Sum­mits Trek that’s come out of nowhere and will prob­a­bly became the largest com­pany oper­at­ing on Ever­est. In the next cou­ple of years it’s going to become locally owned and locally run. That can really com­pli­cate things. On the one hand you’d think that we’d be in favor of local Nepalese and Sherpa tak­ing own­er­ship of the indus­try and becom­ing cap­i­tal­ist work­ing for them­selves and mak­ing more of the prof­its. On the other hand, as I wrote about last year, the safety record of a lot of these local out­fit­ters is not yet close to where it needs to be com­pared with your top west­ern out­fit­ters like Alpine Ascents or Rainier Mountaineering.

I think you’re going to see prices falling as some of these larger local com­pa­nies assert con­trol. But I also think you’re going to see casu­al­ties prob­a­bly rise among clients and among Sherpa as guides who are less well trained and clients who are less well pre­pared are tack­ling the moun­tain. At the same time, the Sherpa fam­i­lies whose hus­bands are work­ing for these local out­fit­ters by far are worse off than the ones work­ing for the top west­ern out­fit­ters. I think some of that is cul­tural where the local out­fit­ters, the Sherpa-baser out­fit­ters, have a some­what more fatal­is­tic view of the dan­gers of work­ing on Ever­est: If it all goes well you’re going to make a lot of money. If it doesn’t you’re going to die. There’s an insur­ance pay­ment and that’s about it. That’s basi­cally what I saw on the ground last Octo­ber. If a climber had died work­ing for one of these local out­fit­ters they felt bad about it, but the level of addi­tional help beyond the basic government-required insur­ance pay­ment was pretty minimal.


The Clymb: What does the future hold for the improve­ment of work safety con­di­tions or at least a bet­ter safety net for Sherpa?  Will sweep­ing gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion of the busi­ness make a difference?

Schaf­fer: I was pretty heart­ened by the government’s deci­sion to bump up the insur­ance rates last June. That was right when we were going to press with this story and it shocked us. We didn’t expect the gov­ern­ment to get involved and act. When they did that, the biggest push­back that they got was not from the west­ern out­fit­ters but from the local out­fit­ters. As far as build­ing up a safety net that’s where it really needs to be done. When a lot of these local com­pa­nies have prob­lems, whether it’s with their clients or with the work­ers, there’s not really a very big PR cost for them to pay. But when peo­ple like me are snoop­ing around and writ­ing about every mis­take that the big west­ern out­fit­ters make there is a real penalty but the local out­fit­ters can kind of slide under the radar.

I think hav­ing those stiffer man­dates is impor­tant. I think there will con­tinue to be grow­ing pains with local com­pa­nies con­tin­u­ing to be able to out-compete west­ern out­fit­ters on price. West­ern climbers want to climb Ever­est, but so do Indian climbers and clients from all over Asia—the demand is not just from the U.S. and Europe any more. Look­ing at price is one of the ways that they’re shop­ping and I think there is still an assump­tion on a lot of people’s part that one Sherpa guide is as good as the next. There is no real under­stand­ing of how widely the skill lev­els vary and what you’re actu­ally get­ting. Things will con­tinue to be in flux, but I think they will be able to get it together and offer a trip that’s safe for the work­ers and safe for the clients, where they’re deal­ing with object haz­ards and less with human error.


Read “The Dis­pos­able Man” from the August 2013 issue of Out­side online here.